5 ways the smartphone is conquering the tablet

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Credit: Florence Ion

After nearly five years of growth, the tablet market has officially stalled. According to research firm IDC, tablet sales fell 3.2% year over year in the 2014 holiday quarter, with even bigger drops coming from market leaders Apple and Samsung.

The tablet’s biggest problem? The smartphone. The tablet’s older, smaller cousin has quietly started doing all of the tablet’s jobs—and in some cases, the smartphone is just flat-out better. So let’s run down six reasons why 2015 is a great time to trade in your old tablet for a modern, big-screen smartphone.

1. We now know the 6-inch screen is the ideal size for reading

Back in the days of 10-inch tablets and 3.5-inch smartphones, the tablet was the obvious choice for books. Sure, a tiny iPhone 3GS was more portable, but the diminutive screen was too small for everyday reading.

Swipe ahead five years, however, and the average smartphone screen size has risen from 3.5 to 5.2 inches. While that’s only about a 50% increase in diagonal, it translates to nearly twice the screen real estate—a true game-changer for smartphone-equipped bookworms.

Smartphone screen size - figure by the author

A small increase in diagonal screen size can nearly double total display area.

And when you consider that the world’s most popular e-readers almost all sport 6-inch screens, the smartphone is right on track to take over the tablet’s reading duties.

2. All the best apps are on smartphones, not tablets

With the first wave of tablets in 2010 and 2011, manufacturers promised a parade of made-for-tablet apps, each designed to take advantage of the device’s bigger screen size. Then the market realities set in. Tablets were hot, but not as hot as the mighty smartphone, which by 2012 had claimed over a billion users.

Today, there are a few hundred million tablet users, but nearly two billion smartphone owners, a market mismatch that means all the best games, apps and new ideas show up on the phone first, and the tablet (maybe) later. Add in the fact that the biggest phones look a lot like small tablets, and many mobile developers are simply upscaling their existing phone apps to fit the tablet’s larger screen.

So much for special tablet apps. All the action is on the phone.

3. Smartphones have better battery life

While average battery life in smartphones has nearly doubled over the last five years, juice on the average tablet still lasts a stubborn 10 hours.

This makes sense from a technical perspective—it takes more juice to power those giant screens. But that doesn’t change the fact that a 5.5-inch Galaxy phone will last over twice as long as its 7-inch Galaxy Tab counterpart. With a smartphone, you’re simply getting far more juice per inch of screen real estate—and it’s not close.

4. Smartphones have better cameras

Smartphones are the perfect size for snapping photos, something that can’t be said of most bulky tablets. But even once you go beyond comfort and convenience, the average smartphone still destroys the average tablet on image quality.

From a spec perspective, consider that the average megapixel (MP) count in a tablet camera has stalled out around 8 MPs, while the average flagship smartphone now boasts over 13 MPs. 

Megapixels aren’t everything, and they tend to get overhyped in mobile marketing. But the megapixel march among smartphones shows just how camera-obsessed the phone industry has become, compared to the relative apathy among tablets, where the camera is often an afterthought.

5. On the web, tablets are still caught between mobile and desktop

In a perfect world, every web page would be optimized for every device size. In practice, many sites only have two versions: the classic desktop look, and a mobile look specifically for the smartphone.

This is a problem for tablets, where your favorite webpages will often have to choose between a scrunched desktop version or a blown-up smartphone interface—effectively making the tablet the worst of either world.

desktop vs mobile narrower Image: Ben Patterson

Stuck in the middle: Neither the mobile (left) nor the desktop (right) view on a tablet looks quite right.

Granted, some tech-forward sites feature responsive displays, smart enough to make use of the tablet’s unique size. But this sort of flexible page is far more rare than it should be in 2015. The smartphone simply provides a more consistent web experience.

6. The line between the devices is blurring

Even with all the tablet’s flaws, it’s at least a unique device, right? Won’t the tablet always offer a certain experience you can’t get anywhere else?

Not necessarily. If anything, the tablet and smartphone are quickly becoming the same device.

Based on data from SpecOut, we charted the number of small (under 4.5”), medium (between 4.5” and 5.2”) and large phones (over 5.2”) released each year since 2010. We then did the same for tablets (under 9”, between 9” and 11”, over 11”).

The distinction between tablets and smartphones is getting smaller every year. The only difference? One device has better apps, better cameras, better battery life, and a great web browsing experience. The choice is up to you.

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